The State of Emerging Markets: Up, Down, and Up—but Still Forward

As many developing countries face the beginning of a potentially long currency crisis, let's not forget how far they've come—and will still go—toward democracy, freedom, and rising affluence.
Reuters

The start of the year has not been an easy one for financial markets. The Federal Reserve is continuing its policy of trimming its bond purchases by $10 billion a month, and the immediate result has been a sharp pullback of the currencies, and to some degree equities, of countries such as Indonesia, Turkey, India, South Africa and Argentina. The reason? According to traders, commentators, and even the head of Brazil’s central bank, Fed policy will trigger interest rate rises around the world, staunching the flow of easy money that has purportedly fueled global growth — and leading to struggles everywhere.

That thesis is hardly new. It was widely circulated last summer, when the Fed first hinted that it might begin to wind down its more aggressive measures to stimulate economic activity, which it introduced after 2009. In this reading, the boom times of many countries around the world has had nothing to do with the change in economic fortunes, or skilled leadership, or shifting global sands. It was and is simply a derivative of U.S. policies.

This view has wide play, and goes nearly unchallenged. That does not make it correct.

Indeed, it is likely wrong for at least two major reasons: it forgets that financial markets are not perfect proxies for real world economies, and it misses the fundamental transformation in countries around the world that has taken place over the past few decades and is about to accelerate this year.

As I wrote in a column last August, a U.S.-centric view extends well back into the 20th century, and the only wrinkle today is that China has now entered the mix. Low and behold, China, too, has recently seen some slowing of its growth, largely because of the determination of the Chinese government to shift the mix of its economic growth from state-led infrastructure and exports to domestic consumption. That transition will, inevitably, result in diminishing demand for commodities and raw materials, and that demand had also been a key factor in the strength of other economies, including many of the ones above.

Yes, China’s voracious demand for raw materials did provide a boost to countries as far-ranging as Chile, South Africa, Indonesia and Brazil. And yes, easy money from the Federal Reserve did get deployed to more speculative currencies ranging from Turkey to Argentina. But that speaks only to the narrow — albeit attention-grabbing and important — financial markets. Financial markets are roiling, as they do from time to time, but that doesn’t result in less activity by companies such as Unilever or Starbucks, nor a halt in the emergence of a global middle class in numerous countries.

We shouldn’t overweight the significance of financial markets when evaluating the status of emerging markets; to do so is to espouse a particularly U.S.-centric view of how the world works. More voters, and more Starbucks lattes, are bellwethers for progress, irrespective of how markets are performing.

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Zachary Karabell is Head of Global Strategy at Envestnet, a financial services firm, and author of The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World. More

At River Twice Research, Karabell analyzes economic and political trends. He is also a senior advisor for Business for Social Responsibility. Previously, he was executive vice president, head of marketing and chief economist at Fred Alger Management, a New York-based investment firm, and president of Fred Alger and Company, as well as portfolio manager of the China-U.S. Growth Fund, which won a five-star designation from Morningstar. He was also executive vice president of Alger's Spectra Funds, which launched the $30 million Spectra Green Fund based on the idea that profit and sustainability are linked. Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., he is the author of several books, including Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It (2009), The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, and Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence (2007), which examined the forgotten legacy of peace among the three faiths. In 2003, the World Economic Forum designated Karabell a "Global Leader for Tomorrow." He sits on the board of the World Policy Institute and the New America Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a regular commentator on national news programs, such as CNBC and CNN, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs.

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